A sea-change has revolutionized fine dining around here in recent years—so gradually, those who eat out the most may have noticed it the least.
Oh, they’ve seen Asian restaurants like the Korean Trove and the Vietnamese Stateside and the Chinese Lionhead soar to the top of the charts. And they’ve undoubtedly noted the increase of non-Asian restaurants that speak in broadly Asian accents, like Canlis and Mollusk.
But they may not know that inside the larder of a tiny high-end spot in Wallingford, Art of the Table owner and chef Dustin Ronspies keeps mirin and sesame oil and bonito flakes in constant stock. Or that over at South Lake Union’s MistralKitchen, owner William Belickis likes to top Spanish tortillas with fiery tangles of Korean kimchi. They certainly don’t register the least surprise to find hamachi crudo across Continental menus, whether Italian (How to Cook a Wolf) or French (Pomerol), and they don’t bat an eye to find five-spice duck or Tibetan dumplings at the venerable Dahlia Lounge.
In short, the chefs who drive Seattle’s highest-end restaurants have been shifting the dial eastward for years.
Thank Tom Douglas, who circa 1984 put black cod kasuzuke with seaweed salad on the menu at Cafe Sport—and watched a city’s horizons explode. Douglas and confreres like Jerry Traunfeld (Herbfarm, Poppy) personally revere Asian food, seeding the city with acolytes as their assistants spun off into kitchens of their own. Add in the connectivity revolution, which linked chefs across the world, and one sees why the singularities of Asian cuisine—the umami, the funk, the fermentation—have become the vernacular of Seattle dining.
And so at Sitka and Spruce and Bar Ferd’nand, you could find Traunfeld disciple Matt Dillon heating seaweed in water, deepened with bonito shavings, for a dashi to use in lieu of bone broth for a sauce. Back at MistralKitchen you might see William Belickis testing the unlikely sympathies of Spanish and Korean cuisines by gilding octopus with gochujang chili paste. Jason Stratton, formerly an Italian chef (Cascina Spinasse, Artusi) and now a Middle Eastern one (Mamnoon), reminisces about the black rice congee with parmesan brodo he kept on the menu at Artusi, while Northern Italian maestro Scott Carsberg (the late Lampreia and Bisato) recalls busting loose from classic Italian prescriptions for brisket by deploying yuzu, coriander, and fresh ginger.
Virtually all of these chefs agree that Japanese food’s austerity and precision sustain the biggest Asian influence over Seattle fine dining, nudging Seattle chefs toward strict seasonality, minimalist restraint, and intensity of flavors.
Sound familiar? That’s because it’s pretty much exactly how we’ve come to define Northwest cuisine.